September 18, 2009

SEPTEMBER 19 - Hanging: it concentrates the mind wonderfully

British lawyer and diarist James Boswell recorded many witticisms by Samuel Johnson in his journal. They ended up in Boswell’s noted biography of the great lexicographer and author, Life of Johnson (1791).

One of the most quoted Johnson quips is in Boswell’s entry for September 19, 1777. It was this bit of gallows humor:

"When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Johnson said this about an Anglican clergyman named William Dodd, who was executed by hanging at England’s Tyburn prison on June 27, 1777.

Dodd’s crime was a loan scam.

He had asked a money lender for a sizeable loan that he claimed was for his former student, the 5th Earl of Chesterfield. That young gent was son of the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, known for those famous letters to his son that included platitudes like: “Take care of the minutes: for the hours will take care of themselves.”

Dodd pocketed the loan money and, when it wasn’t repaid, his scam was revealed. He was tried and sentenced to death. But some people, including Samuel Johnson, thought that seemed a bit harsh.

So, Johnson tried to help by penning an eloquent, Bible-quoting plea for mercy that was released publicly – under Dodd’s name – in an effort to persuade the court to let him live.

It didn’t work. Dodd was hung anyway, alongside another criminal named Joseph Harris.

But the entreaty Johnson had ghost written was soon published with the title  The Convict’s Address to His Unhappy Brethren. It was initially credited to Dodd and it became quite popular.

In his journal entry for September 19, 1777, Boswell noted that a friend of Johnson’s told the great man he suspected Dodd didn’t write the piece himself, because it was so good.

“Why should you think so?” responded Johnson. “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Johnson’s authorship was eventually revealed and The Convict’s Address is now generally – and properly – credited to him.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to SEPTEMBER 19:

• “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” - H.L. Mencken (1880-1956), American journalist, editor and lexicographer, in the Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1926. Usually misquoted as “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

“Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” – The song “Love and Marriage”, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, music by Jimmy Van Heusen. Introduced by Frank Sinatra in the 1955 television production Our Town, which aired on the Producers' Showcase series on September 19, 1955.

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